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Shaping the Future in Bali

It’s sunrise at Bali’s infamous Legian Beach. The shore is dotted with a few early birds walking the idyllic sands, and I’m lucky enough to have the waves all to myself.

Closer to the palm trees and the main road, the locals set up shop for another day of entertaining tourists from the world over. Umbrellas are propped up, surf and stand-up paddle boards stand neatly in line, and beach mats and sarongs are spread out for display.

The aroma of hot coffee and Indonesian fried breakfast snacks fills the air, along with the sales pitch for “Cheap surfing lessons!”

Surf vendors are found at most popular beach destinations the world over. These ubiquitous purveyors of ocean fun persistently approach sunburned visitors when not being ignored or avoided. Watching their morning routine, I wondered about the untold stories they could tell about their lives.

I’d find out sooner than later, as I meet Mohammat Aan on a Saturday morning while waxing my board. Aan’s day begins before dawn as he drives into Kuta with six or seven boards, mostly beginner-friendly foams and fun boards. From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., he mans his rental board hut or is in the surf teaching the finer points of board riding to eager tourists.

What separates Aan from other vendors is that he only uses boards his company, Sunrise Surfboards, produces. Noticing my curiosity, Aan invited me to check out his surfboard factory after his 12-hour shift.

It’s past 10 p.m. and our car painfully inches its way south toward the airport through Legian’s legendary traffic and nightlife. The factory is located in the heart of Jalan Kediri, a crammed district hidden beneath the shadow of touristy Kuta and not particularly near the beach. This is not the part of Bali most tourists see.

There’s a comfortable, homely vibe as I step into Sunrise. Beyond the warehouse’s humble exterior and concrete brick walls, the mood is relaxed and friendly as four Indonesian guys in their early to mid-20s shape boards late into the night.

I’m handed a facial mask as a “gun” spray is painted. Two guys share a box of donuts as they ready a foam board for export. In the next room, Aan oversees the final touches being applied to a shortboard, as I wonder how he has the stamina to keep shaping after a full day at the beach. Looking at his deeply tanned face and sun-bleached hair, one might think he’s been surfing in Bali his entire life. But his heavy Javanese accent is a dead giveaway.

“I grew up near the ocean –- but not surfing,” Aan explains.

He was born and raised in the East Java capital of Surabaya. Although Surabaya is a modern industrial city, the wealth gap is staggering. Monthly income ranges anywhere from ¥10,000 to ¥250,000 and, as the city expands, poor urban populations struggle with higher living costs and unemployment levels.

Twenty-nine-year-old Aan spent most of his youth as a fisherman, but poverty struck when development increased. “I smoke and had no money to buy cigarettes,” he laughs, then his face soon turns somber.

“But, I also had no money for food.”

Yet there was money in Bali. The tropical paradise attracts four million visitors a year. Aan packed up his bags and set off for Bali with a few friends in hopes of finding employment in the tourism business.

Unsure of where to start, he went surfing with a friend and learned to ride the waves in just three days. He practiced by himself every day at Kuta Beach. Perhaps it is the nostalgia speaking, but he claims Kuta, regardless of how crowded or chaotic it is, remains one of his favorite surf spots. Meanwhile, his cousin, also from Surabaya, wanted to start a surfboard factory in Bali. With some research and a lot of trial and error, the duo perfected their first board in a month. Sunrise Surfboards was off and running.

It wasn’t long before orders started coming in from as far away as South Korea. Soon the enterprising Aan was able to save money for his next project: attending Japanese school in Osaka. Like most Surabayans, Aan only spoke Indonesian and Javanese at the time and almost no English, but he wanted to set himself apart from the other vendors.

“The number of Japanese tourists was growing in Bali. So many (surf instructors) already spoke English, so I wanted to learn Japanese.”

In 2011, he signed up for a three-and-a-half-year course in Osaka, while working at a duct tape factory. Japan was a special time. During holidays, he would travel to Kyoto and Chiba to catch the waves.

Today, Aan continues to shape Sunrise boards with his cousin and manages staff from Jakarta and Surabaya who, like him, moved to Bali in pursuit of a better life. Once a year, he uses his yearly savings to fly home to visit his family. When I ask if he wants to do this forever, he seems unsure, yet going with the flow.

“Who knows? I’m single now, but if I get married and have a family in Surabaya, I may move back. But for now, my life is in Bali.”

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